Thursday, May 07, 2009

Zonca’s Julia

If ever there was a film that could frighten a hardcore alcoholic into rehab, Erick Zonca’s Julia is it. The title character does just about every reprehensible thing a human being can do, always managing to find a new low to sink to. Opening tomorrow in New York, Julia (trailer here) is both a harrowing portrait of addiction as well as a white-knuckle crime story.

Those who need to like a film’s protagonist should stop reading now. Julia Harris does not go to sleep, she passes out. She is a self-destructive user, who is not fooling anyone anymore, except maybe herself. She has burned nearly every bridge in her wake, including the real estate job her ever-loyal on-the-wagon want-to-be boyfriend Mitch arranged for her. Penniless with no prospects, she pretends to help Elena, her obviously delusional neighbor and fellow AA member, kidnap her son Tom from his wealthy grandfather. However, she plans to double-cross the guileless Elena and ransom Tom back to his grandfather.

Zonca’s film is hardly a remake of Jimmy the Kid. Harris and Tom do not exactly bond. At first, she keeps him bound and unconscious while high-tailing it for Mexico. Eventually, she tries to make nice, telling Tom she is taking him to Elena, the mother he never really knew, as she secretly negotiates his ransom through an alarmed Mitch. Though he is skeptical, Tom forms an uneasy truce with his kidnapper. However, her incessant boozing attracts the wrong kind of attention in Tijuana, at which point things really go south.

Two and a half hours of watching Tilda Swinton play a dissipated, amoral drunk might sound excruciatingly long, but thanks to her manic conviction in the title role, Julia seems far shorter than its actual running time. It is an eye-opening performance that should completely change icy preconceptions of Swinton. Scarily compelling, she never seems false or exaggerated, despite her sheer ferocity.

Low-key veteran character actor Saul Rubinek perfectly compliments her, supplying the film’s moral center as Mitch, the world-weary romantic. 24 fans will also note the brief but effective appearance of Jude Ciccolella (a.k.a. Chief of Staff Mike Novick) as Nick, Harris’s reformed partner in debauchery.

Inspired by Cassavetes, Zonca is true to the pioneering indie filmmaker’s gritty sensibility, while adding the trappings of a film noir thriller. Though undeniably dark, it is never nihilistic, always embracing the humanity of its deeply flawed characters. Clearly not for everyone’s tastes, Julia represents tour-de-force work from its director and fearless lead. Intense to the point of exhausting, it is recommended for discerning audiences. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika and Beekman Theaters.